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U.S. wants China to use its influence with Iran to calm tensions in the Middle East


There's a global diplomatic push to try to avert a broad regional war in the Middle East following Iran's attack on Israel last weekend as Israel weighs a possible response.


As part of that push, the U.S. is reaching out to China, hoping Beijing will use its influence on Tehran. But it is unclear how far China will be willing to go, especially now, because today, the U.S. is announcing a tripling of tariffs on Chinese steel.

FADEL: NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam joins us now to discuss. Good morning, Jackie.


FADEL: So why China? What sort of influence does it have with Tehran?

NORTHAM: Well, it's one of the largest countries that has some sway with Iran. You know, they're natural bedfellows in their opposition to the U.S. You know, Beijing also offers Tehran diplomatic support and certainly an economic lifeline. You know, it's really the only country buying Iranian oil, so they do have this strong, if mostly transactional, relationship.

I spoke with Evan Medeiros. And he's a China specialist at Georgetown University, and he was on the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration. And he says there's a big question about how far Beijing is willing to go along with the request from the Biden administration. Let's have a listen to him.

EVAN MEDEIROS: The idea that Beijing is prepared to use any diplomatic capital or any leverage that it has on Tehran is a big, open question. And the broader Chinese view is, why should we carry any water with the Americans on this? This is their problem. They created it.

NORTHAM: Medeiros says turmoil in the Middle East could distract the Biden administration from focusing on its competition with China and, you know, its military activities in the South China Sea. But, you know, just to further complicate things, the U.S. and some allies have now imposed more sanctions on Iran. And, you know, the Biden administration, as you said, just announced a tripling of tariffs on Chinese steel, you know - and which could have an impact on any interest Beijing might have with helping out with Iran.

FADEL: So if the U.S. is hoping for China's help in this moment to pressure Iran, which is warning it would respond harshly to any possible response from Israel, why make the decision to triple tariffs now?

NORTHAM: It's hard to say. It's an election year. It could help the U.S. steel industry. You know, but the timing is interesting if the U.S. is looking for China's help. There have been moments when China has stepped out. You know, it helped broker a deal to reestablish relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. And at that time, there were indications Beijing wanted to position itself as a critical player in the region.

FADEL: OK, so we've seen China play a really important role in the region, as you point out. Does that continue today? Would Beijing be willing in this moment, with fears of all-out regional war, to intervene with Iran?

NORTHAM: Well, that's the hope. I mean, several analysts I spoke with said there have been times when, you know, Beijing could have used its influence in the region, and it didn't. You know, there were calls recently for China to exert pressure on Iran to rein in the Houthis and their attacks on shipping vessels in the Red Sea - didn't happen. I spoke with Andrew Mertha, and he's a professor of China studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. And he says Beijing likes the idea of being a great player in the region, but it doesn't want to get involved in other countries' domestic issues. Here he is now.

ANDREW MERTHA: I think that Beijing's foreign policy tends to be both opportunistic and fairly timid. That's because Beijing is unprepared to play a larger role in the region that might require difficult decisions.

NORTHAM: Decisions such as getting militarily involved or upending relations it's trying to nurture with other countries in the region - so economic relations, Leila. Mertha says it's all transactional for China.

FADEL: NPR's Jackie Northam. Thanks, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.